The coronavirus is a novel respiratory illness. It is suspected to have originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Since early 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have worked tirelessly to establish protocols to prevent an overwhelming surge of nationwide COVID-19 cases.

While experts have alleged that the coronavirus originated in animals, the disease is now capable of spreading from person to person. At this time, there is no vaccine for this distressing infectious disease. As a result, the entire population has been asked to participate in community mitigation strategies. 

Studies show that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets that have been discharged from contagious individuals. These droplets are discharged whenever a person coughs or sneezes. People can contract and even spread the disease by touching an item that has been exposed to these droplets. 

It is important to note that healthy individuals can carry the disease without ever experiencing symptoms. For these reasons, the CDC has had to develop strict public safety protocols. These protocols are designed to protect the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, particularly people over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions. 

Studies also show that N95 masks, or NIOSH-certified filtering facepiece respirators, help to lower the curve of coronavirus cases and deaths. For this reason, the CDC has advocated for everyone (those over the age of 2) to wear face masks in public. 

We know that N95 masks are the most reliable form of personal protective equipment when it comes to controlling COVID-19. Yet, disaster-time demands have caused these once readily available face covering to be in short supply. 

Who Should Be Wearing an N95 Mask?

At this time, the CDC has said that members of the public should not wear N95 masks. PPE is in short supply. N95 masks must be reserved for medical professionals, first responders, and other essential workers.

Members of the general public should use cloth face coverings instead. The CDC has recommended that all members of the general public wear cloth face coverings in public to stop the spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organization also includes N95 masks in their recommendations for slowing the spread of coronavirus. 

Benefits of N95 Masks

An N95 mask, or filtering facepiece respirator (FFR), is a person’s best defense against the novel coronavirus. Here are a few things that we know about N95 masks:

  • They cover the nose and mouth. 
  • According to the FDA, they block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, and splatters.
  • They are resistant to fluids.
  • They are made of materials that can efficiently block 95% of large and small particles.

Important N95 Respirator Precautions

  • N95 respirators should never be shared or reused.
  • N95 masks may make it more difficult for some people to breathe. According to the CDC, these people include those who are pregnant, those who’ve had a stroke, the elderly, and individuals with chronic lung disease and/or heart disease.
  • N95 masks are not designed to be used by children
  • N95 masks are not designed to be used by individuals with facial hair.
  • N95 masks with one-way valves do not prevent individuals from spreading the virus. Keep your face clean-shaven if you need to wear an N95 mask for your profession.
  • Researchers are in the trial stages of developing official methods for disinfecting N95 face masks.

Check out this video for more tips on wearing N95 masks. 

How to Don a N95 Facepiece Respirator

1. Locate your N95 facepiece, but do not remove it from its packaging.

2. Clean your hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wash them according to the CDC’s recommendation. Rub your hands together, thoroughly going over all surfaces. 

3. Place the N95 mask on your face.

4. Use both hands to mold the nosepiece, the strip of thin metal wire on the front of your mask. Do not pinch the nosepiece. It needs to be molded over your face to form an airtight seal. 

5. Check to make sure that the facemask extends over your chin, mouth, and nose. 

6. Pull the bottom strap up and over your head. Secure it just above below ears.

7. Pull the top strap up and over your head. Secure it just above your ears.

8. Perform a user seal check. 

A user seal check is a procedure that you should perform every time you don an N95 mask. To perform a positive pressure user seal check, hold your hands over your mask, covering as much surface as possible. Exhale into the facepiece. You can confirm that your facepiece is properly sealed if pressure builds up inside the mask and there is no leakage.

How to Remove a Facepiece Respirator

Important: You must never touch the front of your mask during removal. 

1. Remove all of the other PPE you are wearing before doffing your N95 mask. Remove your gloves, your apron, your gown, and your eye protection. Stand above an appropriately lined wastebasket.

2. Use both hands to reach around the back of your head. Carefully and slowly lift the bottom strap and bring it around to the front. 

3. Then, use both hands to lift the top strap. Pull it up and over your head while keeping its tension. 

4. When you reach the front of your head, be sure to pull the strap away from your face. 

5. Drop the mask into the wastebasket below you.

6. Wash your hands according to the CDC’s guidelines

Check out the CDC’s instructions for doffing N95 masks.

N95 Use Guidelines

N95 masks are intended to be used once. In an ideal world, these masks should be worn for periods that are no longer than 8 to 10 hours. Masks should be removed and disposed of at the time an employee takes a break. Of course, unprecedented supply chain stains have opened the door for crisis recommendations.

Workers should undergo fit tests before using an N95 respirator in the workplace. Some individuals may experience breathing issues when donning N95 respirators for extended periods. Some users may find their N95 masks to be uncomfortable.

Decontaminating and Reuse of N95 Respirators

As coronavirus cases surged, the CDC issued Emergency Use Authorizations. These included discretionary tips for decontaminating and reusing traditionally disposable facepiece respirators. These recommendations are only intended to be applied during times when N95 masks are in short supply. For this reason, they are deemed crisis standards. These standards do not apply when PPE is readily available. 

As we know, the coronavirus can live on surfaces for as long as 72 hours. In theory, masks set aside for at least 72 hours are decontaminated. 

As such, the CDC has recommended that employers issue healthcare workers and first responders five N95 masks. They advise the workers to wear each of their masks for an entire shift before transferring it to a breathable paper bag. 

Workers should label the bag and set it aside until all five masks have been worn. Then, they are to repeat this same method with the remaining masks. Once all of the masks have been worn, the worker may re-wear the masks in the same order. This way, at least five days (more than 72 hours) pass before a worker re-wears a mask. 

Of course, these respirators should only be used when it is absolutely necessary. There are various risks involved in the reuse of personal protective equipment. Mainly, the PPE may not perform as expected or may even contribute to the spread of COVID-19. For this reason, previously worn masks should never be worn during aerosol-generating procedures.

Other crisis-time decontamination recommendations include:

  • Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI)
  • Vaporous hydrogen peroxide (VHP)
  • Moist heat

Other decontamination methods that have been tested by the CDC include:

  • Autoclave
  • Dry heat
  • Isoproyl alcohol
  • Soap
  • Dry microwave irradiation
  • Bleach
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Ethylene oxide (EtO)

There are also decontamination methods that have not been tested. 

Using Expired N95 Respirators

When cases of COVID-19 began spiking in the U.S., the U.S. government released expired stockpiles of N95 masks to battle the crushing nationwide shortage. It was a desperate yet essential move that paved the way for temporary amendments to the CDC’s N95 respirator recommendations. Before they released these stockpiles, the CDC tested a sample of the respirators. The CDC and NIOSH found that the masks provided adequate protection even though their expiration dates had long past. 

The CDC has also issued tips for using expired N95 masks. They encourage people to use expired respirators when unexpired N95 respirators are no longer available. Workers are required to inspect every expired piece of PPE individually.

Tips for Wearing N95 Masks

  • Avoid touching the inside or outside of a N95 mask.
  • Sanitize or clean your hands before donning a N95 mask.
  • Wear clean gloves when donning and doffing N95 masks.
  • Perform a user seal check after donning an N95 mask.
  • Perform a visual inspection of your N95 mask. Check the straps, nosepiece, and mask material for material defects.
  • Discard N95 masks that fail user seal checks or visual inspections.

You can find a list of N95 masks and decontamination methods on the CDC’s webpage.

The Data on N95 Masks

N95 filtering facepiece respirators are proven to block 95% of particles as small as 0.3 microns. When these masks are worn correctly, they effectively stop viruses, including coronavirus, from entering a person’s mouth or nose. 

Researching Specific N95 Masks

The CDC has published detailed information on most N95 mask makes and models. All NIOSH-approved facemasks boast approval numbers. These can be found directly on a facemask or a facemask’s package. 

According to the CDC, approval numbers are printed in red. They should be followed by blue figures. The blue text identifies a mask’s level of protection. If you are looking for a NIOSH-approved face mask, you can check the CDC database.

Here are a few pointers for deciphering N95 labels:

  • “N”: Not resistant to oil
  • “R”: Somewhat resistant to oil
  • ”P”: Resistant to oil
  • Labels should boast a percentage rating that ranges from 95% to 100%. This number represents the presence of particles filtered by the mask.

Other NIOSH-Approved Filtering Facepiece Respirators

N95 masks aren’t the only kinds of filtering facepiece respirators that stop the spread of infectious disease. 

N95 masks are air-purifying respirators. They filter fresh air from the atmosphere. A more extreme type of FFR is the atmosphere-supplying respirator. These devices supply you with fresh air. 

  1. Atmosphere-supplying respirators include self-contained breathing apparatuses. They are typically used by hazmat teams and firefighters. 
  2. Air-supplied respirators supply fresh air through a lengthy tube. They enable workers to safely complete tasks without an oxygen tank weighing them down.
  3. Combination Respirators have built-in air supplies that can be used in emergencies.
  4. N95 masks: filter 95% of airborne particles
  5. Surgical N95 masks: N95 masks approved as surgical masks
  6. N99 masks: Not resistant to oil
  7. N100 masks: filter 99.97% of airborne particles
  8. R95 masks
  9. P95 masks
  10. P99 masks
  11. P100 masks

What to Look For

The COVID-19 crisis has caused unprecedented N95 mask shortages around the world. For this reason, workers have been asked to overlook the former N95 masks standards. Workers must be able to recognize the markings on N95 masks and other filtered facepieces. After all, they may be asked to don reused or expired PPE. 

The CDC has published data concerning the performance standard of reused and expired facemasks. You can find how specific makes and models performed by checking their website. 

  • NOISH logo
  • Filter designation: ex. N95, R95
  • Model #
  • Lot #
  • Private label